- Spectacular Distractions:P.T. Barnum and American Modernism
Browsing a copy of the New York Times on March 24, 1885, readers would probably not have dwelt with much seriousness on one particular article they found inside: a report of P. T. Barnum’s latest extravaganza, staged the previous evening at Madison Square Garden. As will become clear, however, despite the article’s obvious purpose as light-hearted filler it serves as a prescient and perhaps surprising entry point into the arguments about the origins of literary modernism that this essay stakes out. “Spectators Crowding Around The Three Circus Rings And Curiosities,” the article’s headline announces, and it continues:
The round and jolly face of P.T. Barnum…beamed tranquilly down from the lofty private box … and the old gentleman almost bought strabismus upon himself in his efforts to look at the three rings and the stage all at once. … Within the rings there was so much going on at once that no one could bring away a succinct idea of what he had seen unless he brought a programme with him.1
The scale of the performance is obvious (Madison Square Garden at this time had a capacity of 10,000 people and its arena was 270 feet long), but what makes the report such an intriguing fragment within the wider history of modern visual culture is the way it emphasises and makes explicit the difficulty such dispersed spectacle posed to perceiving subjects. Barnum’s problems are figured in bodily terms—his “efforts to look” are in danger of inducing “strabismus”2—while the other spectators’ inability to “bring away a succinct idea” of what they have seen suggests the challenge is more one of cognition. Tucked away in the New York Times on that spring morning in 1885, in other words, was [End Page 107] an unusually direct insight into a familiar and pervasive concern of the period: the problem of paying attention amidst modernity’s spectacular distractions.
It is striking how often written accounts of and advertisements for Barnum’s shows reiterate this distinctive perceptual problem. A few years later, in 1889, the London Times ran an account of Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” that found in the show’s performative excess the qualities that made it so modern:
With everything in full swing from one end of the huge hall to the other, a novel sensation of wonderment creeps over the observer, who is distantly reminded of the great ‘machinery in motion’ gallery of the Paris Exhibition. That it is impossible for the most lynx-eyed onlooker to follow all these performances at one and the same time Mr. Barnum has not to be told. … It is precisely in the immensity, the complexity, the kaleidoscopic variety, and, to use the word in its strict etymological sense, the incomprehensibility of the show that Mr. Barnum’s genius is displayed.3
The larger point I want to make here is that journalistic flourishes such as these indicate an emerging mode of visual culture at the end of the nineteenth century, one that found a distinct expression at sites of popular entertainment and one that figured centrally in the broader aesthetic project of modernism. The impossibility of being fully cognizant of a Barnum production (its “incomprehensibility”) stems from its deliberate effort to present a surplus of sensory information, to revel in the multiplication of spectacle for its own sake. Such displays had become synonymous with the more ambitious end of the century’s entertainment industry; their stated aim—to outstrip an individual’s capacity for comprehension—placed them very much at the heart of late nineteenth-century metropolitan experience.
Two conceptual terms insistently emerge at this point that will continue to frame the argument as it unfolds. They are spectacle and attention, both coming with a long critical heritage that it is important to acknowledge here even as I admit that this essay can only hope to take for granted a certain interpretation of them. Spectacle is the more well-worn of these, understood here in its narrower sense as a form of choreographed display largely insulated from a dialogic interaction with spectators...